Thursday, August 12, 2010

Dave R. Loy: A Buddhist History of the West

Today I finished Dave R. Loy's A Buddhist History of the West: Studies in Lack (2002, 228p). I purchased this book when 1HP & I visited The Ark, a book and gift store, in Santa Fe during our visit last month. The purchase proved itself quite worthwhile. Loy now teaches at Xavier University in Cincinnati, but he received much of his education and spent much of his early career in Japan and other parts of Asia. He brings a Western mind to Buddhism, and his efforts are quite fruitful. This was quite an—dare I say it?—enlightening book.

Loy argues that much of the cultural-religious heritage in the Christian West comes from a sense of "lack". Although I don't think he says so directly, I think we can posit that in Western mythology, this sense of lack arises from the expulsion from the Garden of Eden and the subsequent development of the concept of original sin. (Loy, however, does spend time on the Classical Greeks, who developed their own mythology accounting for this sense of lack.) Loy discusses other turning points in Western culture in light of how they dealt with their sense of lack. His discussion of the great changes of medieval church after 1000 A.D. is quite interesting. Loy writes about the effect of the separation of Church and State in the High Middle Ages, and to this separation and its cultural effects he attributes the development of the Western legal system and a new concept of time. He writes:

The dynamism of the West and the authority of its law may both be traced back to the Papal reformation that occurred in Europe in the late eleventh century. This was not a reformation but a true revolution, in fact, arguably the most important revolution the West ever experienced. Significantly, it was not primarily a secular revolution, as we might expect, but a spiritual one: not only in the sense that it transformed the Papacy, and from there the whole structure of medieval society, but even more because it involved a radically new understanding of our human condition and its salvation. It was based upon a new theological doctrine about what sin is and show we can be redeemed—in other words, a new explanation of our human lack and how that is to be resolved. Berman concludes his massive study of the legal revolution that accompanied this change by claiming, "Without the fear of Purgatory and the hope of the Last Judgment, the Western legal tradition could not have come into being" (558). Even that extraordinary claim is still too modest. This spiritual revolution led to a bifurcation of the world into the scared and the secular spheres, whose disengagement led to "a release of energy and creativity analogous to the process of nuclear fission" (Berman 88).

Loy, A Buddhist History of the West: Studies in Lack, 42.

Loy also then directs his discussion to the unique sense of time that developed in the West, something that I might note Lewis Mumford identified many years ago as a unique historical development.

However, Loy's discussion of the onset of modernity is equally intriguing. He draws extensively on the work of Christopher Hill about the English Puritans, who attempted to deal with issues of sin and guilt in the midst of the Scientific Revolution. Loy then examines the Enlightenment, and he concludes is historical survey by examining modernity through a consideration of perspectives of Max Weber and Gerog Simmel, among others.

I really learned a lot about early modern thinking by reading this book, an area where my knowledge is sorely deficient. The 17th century saw the likes of Hobbes, Locke, the English Revolution, the Puritans, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, and Newton, among others. It also marked the beginning of the nation-state system. Loy's discussion of this era really gave me some new insights, and his conceit about culture as addressing a sense of lack helped shape a coherent perspective for his book.

Loy also discusses contemporary market economics, and he makes an interesting point by considering market economics as a religious phenomena, with values of its own, a theology (written by market economists), and with critics (like Karl Polyani & R.H. Tawney). This perspective, with its critique of market economics, draws in large measure from Daly and Cobb's For the Common Good (1994). Loy raises interesting points. I have come to think of market economics more and more as a genie that we've loosed from a bottle. The genie has provided us with unimaginable riches, but can we control the genie, or does the genie control us? Loy argues, with some justification, that we're first and foremost consumers who suffer an imperative to "grow" the economy and produce more and more. In the Buddhist perspective, this seems to reflect desire, one of the three poisons, along with hatred and delusion.

Loy doesn't speak much in this book about Buddhist doctrine, of which he's written a great deal elsewhere, but his use of the three poisons (greed, aversion, and delusion) as a guide to culture and thought, and as keys to dealing with our sense of lack in the Buddhist tradition, makes this a very compelling book.